7
Jan
2011
My Year in Lists
Week One
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.


"When I'm creating at the piano, I tend to feel happy; but"”the eternal dilemma"”how can we be happy amid the unhappiness of others? I'd do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That's what's at the heart of my music."-Nino Rota


"Rock "˜n' Roll is part of a test to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation. It is sexualistc, unmoralistic and"¦ brings people of both races together."-Quoted in Charles White's The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorized Biography


"All visceral, all emotional, all theatrical, all perfect"”one of the best albums ever."-Ned Raggett of Allmusic, on Joy Division's "˜Unknown Pleasures.'


Music does something to us. At its worst it grates, annoys, and inspires ire more quickly than almost anything else. And at its best it takes us somewhere"”somewhere emotional, somewhere intellectual, and yes, occasionally somewhere physical (whether it's a journey to see a band play live or just a complicated undertaking on a little read blog quietly gathering dust in a back corner of the internet). Welcome to My Year in Lists, where over the next 52 weeks I will be going on a journey with anyone kind enough, or brave enough to read along. The purpose of this column is to get a better handle on music both from a critical and a societal perspective. To begin with, a bit of background. I like music (contrary to popular belief, my ear canal delivers sound to my brain, which enjoys melodious harmonies as much as the next guy, if not slightly more so), but it has never been my chief pop culture interest (anyone care to hazard a few guesses there?) and so I would hardly call myself an expert. So I went out and dragged some music-savvy people I know into developing a year long course through the musical history they laid out for me. It won't always go in strictly chronological order, and since each list is arranged differently, we may be discussing shockingly divergent artists or albums on any given week, but hey, that's part of the fun. If you find my analysis or efforts to put each album in context to be lacking, feel free as always to tell me so in the comments; I'm trying to improve as a critical listener of music and as a music writer through this feature, so you'll forgive me if the first few weeks are a bit rocky.


As I already said, my expertise (if I can even go so far as to call it that, which I constantly question) is more in television and film, so it is somewhat appropriate that the first entry off of Tab's list is a collection of composer Nino Rota's work with director Federico Fellini, the aptly named Fellini / Rota. While I have previously discussed the potential importance of the composer to the success of a film (in my column on Sergio Leone, which touched on his partnership with Ennio Morricone), the focus here is on the music itself, and as Fellini / Rota includes only excerpts from several different Fellini films scored by Rota, I will be ignoring the films themselves for the moment (though next week, when Tab's list allows us to look specifically at the full score to three different films, two of which were directed by Fellini, we will examine the way that music affects film more in depth) and looking just at how the music works on its own, and what lasting impact Rota has had on composing.

At his most upbeat and frenetic, the scores of Nino Rota can best be described as circus music with gravitas. The piece "The White Sheik" sounds like listening to the most awesome marching band in the history of mankind (though don't ask me how the piano player is marching along with them so well), and a similar energy infuses "Boccaccio '70 / La Dolce Vita" and to some extent "8 1/2." As Rota himself said, one of the major goals of his music was to bring happiness to others, and much of his music feels like a joyful celebration of creativity and of the act of creation itself.







Rota managed to craft many tunes that bring joy to the listener, yet he did not gain his reputation as a master composer from creating ecstasy alone; he was also the master of making emotions turn on a dime. "La Strada" evokes tragic melancholy and regretful nostalgia before quickly becoming playful in a dark, street fair at midnight kind of way. "The Swindle" begins as a jaunty homage to the scores of Western movies (feeling just slightly like Morricone pulled through Rota's frenetic energy) before becoming caught up in the joy of showmanship, much like one would need to pull off the caper of its title.




Rota, much like his contemporary Ennio Morricone, writes scores that often beg to be noticed, and I mean that in the best way possible. His work is so distinctive, it is still being mimicked today, nearly over 30 years after his death (similarities can be specifically noted in the theme for It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and in the entire score for Curb Your Enthusiasm). Regardless of the strength of Rota's work, he is often inextricably viewed as part of Fellini's whole. Separating the work of Fellini from that of Rota would be difficult, but then the question arises, why would you want to? The two work so well together it can be easy to forget the strength of their individual contributions. Rota's music stands on its own shockingly well, while being indelible to each film to which he contributed. He will always be remembered first and foremost as the composer behind Fellini's work (as well as the first two Godfather movies), but what makes Rota's work undeniably essential is the sheer joy of his craft.



Another artist who can similarly be categorized as taking joy in the power of music is Little Richard, whose technical debut album (though he had recorded before and seen moderate success as a live performer and a member of The Upsetters) Here's Little Richard is Collin's first selection. Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) is widely considered the father of rock "˜n' roll, and was one of the seven initial inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as being one of four of those seven (along with Ray Charles, who we'll talk about next week, James Brown, and Fats Domino) to have also won the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Pioneer Life Achievement Award. From the first, Little Richard was seen as a wildly inventive, showy, and charismatic live performer, yet he did not find success in the studio until 1955, when he began recording in the same manner he used during live shows, adding varied rhythms, using gospel style energy, moaning, screaming, and adding other vocal inflections to spice up his tracks.

The now famous opening of his hit "Tutti Frutti," the first track on Here's Little Richard, "A-wop-bop-a-loo-lop-a-lo-bam-boom" is based on an improvisation he had done on stage for years while imitating a drum beat with his voice. The song that follows is an incredibly memorable early rock jam about a man who only dates girls fortunate enough to have a primary attribute that rhymes with their first name. One of his paramours, Sue, knows just what to do. Another, Daisy, almost drives him crazy. I imagine there's a Petunia out there very upset that Richard refuses to consider her as a possible romantic interest. "Can't Believe You Wanna Leave," meanwhile, is about a man who is incredulous that his paramour may want to discontinue their relationship. And "Baby" has Richard convincing a woman to shed her independence for his masculine charm. The theme of most of these early Little Richard songs is twofold: one, they are all about having sex with attractive women, and two, they are about rocking and rolling as hard as possible. "True Fine Mama" features some phenomenal piano work and "Long Tall Sally" has an improvised saxophone solo clearly displaying Richard's tendency to record the way he played live.





During his touring in the 1950's, Richard was notorious for the large orgies he would have while touring, and also became well known for inviting men back to his room to have sex with women while he watched. All of this turned around on October 12, 1957 (just months after the release of Here's Little Richard shot him to superstardom) when Little Richard quit rock "˜n' roll to become an evangelical preacher after seeing a ball of fire in the sky above a show in Australia that he read as a sign from God (but that was actually Sputnik crashing). Richard got lucky though, as the plane he was originally set to fly back on crashed over the pacific ocean, and he made out just fine, going on to preach and perform gospel music for eight years before "relapsing" into rock "˜n' roll, a path he has been on with a few detours into preaching, ever since.

The musical influence of Little Richard cannot possibly be oversold (though he might quibble with me calling him the Jesus Christ of Rock and Roll). James Brown, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson all count him among their most major influences. Both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles opened for him early in their careers. His knack for performing in garish, often sequined clothing was a clear influence on Elton John, and his hard to pin down sexuality arguably paved the way for figures like David Bowie (while Little Richard has had several lengthy relationships with women, he has said since the "˜90s that he has always been gay and has remained largely single for decades). He made history at a concert in Baltimore when excited audience members had to be restrained from jumping off balconies and police had to remove girls from the arena who had jumped onto the stage to get closer to him. He was also the first musician to regularly have women throwing their underwear at him onstage (which begs the question of whether Little Richard also invented the groupie). Yet Little Richard also had an important cultural impact, bringing the races together at a time still fraught with segregation and racial tension. At the beginning of his career, he by necessity played segregated venues in which whites were allowed on the floor and blacks confined to the balconies, yet he made a point of jazzing his audiences up enough that by the end of many shows the races had mixed together, bonded by Richard's exuberant tunes. He later refused to perform for blacks-only audiences during the Black Power Movement because he refused to exclude anyone from the power of his music. Though he did leave rock "˜n' roll for religion for a period, he eventually realized the potential power of music, and returned to impart his message as far and wide as he could through the power of some damn good rock music.

We've talked a lot so far in this first installment about music's ability to bring joy to our lives, but that is not always the case. Specifically, for our purposes this week, that was not the case for Ian Curtis, the late, lamented front man of Joy Division, whose debut album Unknown Pleasures is Ashley's first pick. Joy Division were among the pioneers of post-punk, which took the rebellious, outsider vibe that drove the punk music, and turned all of that anger and loathing inward, creating a much more introspective sound and paving the way for the alternative movement that was to come (though, as we saw in the introduction to this feature last week, there is an argument over whether or not the term "alternative" is a valid one, and that's something I'm sure I'll get into further in weeks to come).

While their influence on modern music is larger than a familiar cruise liner that sank during its maiden voyage, (everyone from U2 and The Cure to Interpol and Bloc Party refers to the band as a huge influence) what is often forgotten is how much Unknown Pleasures fucking rocks (which may not be a critical term, but is accurate nevertheless). Much is made of the later single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (which we will discuss, along with a more in depth examination of Ian Curtis and of the band's impact a few months down the road), and yet this first album flows with pretty much no filler. From the first track, the stellar "Disorder" which opens with drums and guitar that pulls you right in (and seems strikingly familiar considering how many times its been aped over the years) and doesn't let you go throughout to the more downbeat (emphasis on beat) "Day of the Lords" straight through to the slowly building guitar riff of "New Dawn Fades" and on into the insanely catchy and intensely personal "She's Lost Control" (which details a girl suffering an epileptic seizure, a condition that also afflicted Ian Curtis and contributed in part to the depression that lead to his suicide), Unknown Pleasures is aptly named: it feels like coming home after a long night gone wrong to something comforting you never even knew existed. In short, it's an outrageously strong debut from a band that was torn apart just as it was hitting its stride (though it would reform later as New Order, who we will also be discussing this year), and the sort of album with enough passion, verve, and innovation to birth a movement.









Taking the plunge into absorbing someone else's musical taste for a year (or in my case, three other people's taste) is a potentially nerve wracking venture, and I expect there will be some weeks when I have to fight to enjoy or understand something, but if this first installment is any indication, it should be a very exciting year. In future weeks I hope to talk more about music in general and more about each album in particular, while also making this thing about 500 words slighter (how do we think that's going to work out?). For now though, I'm experiencing a moment of happiness that would do Nino Rota proud, even if anti-Little Richard critics might find it a tad lacking in morals. In short, I've lost control, and if it keeps feeling this good, I don't plan to have it back for quite some time.

Read the introduction to this feature and to the people who generated the lists I'm following this year here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We'll dig deeper into Nino Rota and the relationship between composers and their films with the scores for Rocco E I Suoi Fratelli, Giulietta Degli Spiriti, and Il Casanova, find out what exactly is The Genius of Ray Charles and examine Devo's Duty Now for the Future.
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